I get a lot of questions from friends and customers about how I make our soap, so here’s how I do it!
First, a little chemistry. Any and all soap is made of two main ingredients: 1) a strong base and 2) fatty acids. Bar soap is made with lye (also called caustic soda or sodium hydroxide) as the base and various fats to provide the fatty acids.
When water is added to lye, it is able to react with the fatty acids in the oils. A chemical reaction takes place that changes both the lye and the fats into a completely different substance: SOAP! This reaction is called saponification and it is impossible without lye. I repeat: NO LYE = NO SOAP. When the reaction is complete, no lye will remain – it is all consumed by the reaction. The fats don’t exist in their original form, either, so whether soap is made from animal fats or plant oils, it won’t retain the characteristics it had in its original form. That’s why lard soap doesn’t smell like bacon. 🙂
So what do I use in our soaps?
In addition to lye, which is not optional, I use primarily olive oil and coconut oil in different proportions, depending on the type of soap I want. Olive oil has been used for centuries to produce a mild, creamy bar of soap and coconut oil adds just the right amount of cleaning power and bubbly lather. I’ve come up with my own basic recipe over the past few years that I think has the perfect balance of creaminess, bubbles, hardness, and overall feel. It is gentle and leaves my skin feeling nicely moisturized and rinses well.
I enjoy making and using lard soap but I don’t sell it very often because I’ve found that only older people appreciate it. It’s really wonderful for dry or sensitive skin but I pretty much stick to olive and coconut oil soaps for the Etsy Shop and Farmer’s Market…seems younger generations have too many hang-ups about lard (which is a shame!).
To my basic soap recipe I add natural colorants and essential oils and/or fragrance oils to make them look and smell beautiful. Sometimes I throw in additives such as milk, coffee, clays or sea salt to make each batch unique.
I also “superfat” our soaps with shea butter, meaning that I add it after the saponification reaction is complete. This ensures that the shea butter WILL retain its properties and won’t lose any of its moisturizing wonderful-ness. Sometimes I add some of our honey the same way and for the same reason.
I make almost all of my soaps using the “hot process” method. If you’ve ever read a historical novel or have been to a pioneer-type reenactment, I betcha that’s the way they were making soap. Women used to build a fire outside and make their soap in a great big pot, using lye made from their wood ashes and fat from their animals. At the end of the day, they would have rows and rows of pretty, white soap bars all lined up like little soldiers and ready to use for bathing, laundry, dishwashing and everything else.
The process is a bit more precise nowadays but is basically the same. First, I make the kitchen off-limits to everyone but me and make sure everyone knows that it’s soap making time so I won’t be interrupted or distracted. Next, it’s time to suit up in my thick apron, chemical resistant gloves and goggles, turn on the fan and open the back door for ventilation.
I weigh my oils and melt them all together in my soap making crock pot, then measure my lye and carefully mix the solution. That’s the potentially dangerous part. Next, I slowly add my lye solution to the oils, crank up the heat and start helping the reaction along with my immersion blender.
Once the mixture is creamy and thick like a big pot of caustic pudding, I put the lid on and let the chemistry magic happen while I get my colorants, scents and additives ready.
When the “cook” is finished, I check the pH of the soap to make sure that the saponification is complete so I can finally take off my gloves and add my final ingredients.
Finally, the soap goes into molds just until it’s cool enough to cut, then I unmold it and cut it into bars. I like to let my soap air out for at least two weeks to dry out and harden a little bit to make the bars last longer.
I use a little soap from every batch I make and they are all unique. It’s fascinating every time…or maybe I’m just nerdy like that. 🙂